A Little Bit About Gardening

Volunteering at Kilbourn Park Greenhouse, Chicago

kilbourn1On Chicago’s northwest side in the Irving Park neighborhood is Kilbourn Park organic greenhouse.  I first learned about the greenhouse while doing my Master Gardner’s Certification.  I was so happy to learn that organic practices were being put to use in the city’s park district, and now that I live close, I volunteer there!  Folks from as far as Wheeling come down to help prepare for the plant sale (a huge money maker for the greenhouse).  Just to give you an idea of the size of the sale, I started 60 seeds of one variety of sunflower; and the previous week, I started 72 plugs of just one variety of tomato.  From the looks of it, there will be thousands and thousands of vegetables and flowers grown organically for the sale.kilbournkitty

Along with the pure joy of being in a greenhouse while things are still dormant outdoors, they have a few cute kitty friends.  A practice of organic pest control, these cats help ward off rabbits, rats, snakes, and the like.   If you are interested in helping this dedicated group of gardeners by volunteering, contact Georgia Chilton, ghchilton@gmail.com.

More to come on the prairie and the orchard as they spring to life in the coming weeks.  This is a true gem to Chicago.  For a brief history, please check out Friends of Kilbourn Park Organic Greenhouse.


crocus3How I love to see the first flowers after a white and grey winter.  Looking back at old garden pictures this past weekend, I could hardly believe the color of grass.  Is that vivid of a green even possible?  Take time in the fall to plant spring bulbs, and you will have something to look forward to as the days grow longer and the snow melts away.  Crocus are the sunshine of my life right now.   It is wonderful to spy the cup shaped flowers of yellow, white, and purple.  I do have other leaves of tulip and daffodil popping through the soil, and I’m eager to see them flower too.  But, for now, thank you little crocus! crocus2crocus1

Spring is arriving!

daffodil sproutsI can’t believe it!  Finally, the snow is melting!  The ground is showing (often with lots of melted dog poop, but it is showing).  I have bulbs popping up!  Spring is on it’s way, and it’s time to get out in the yard.

  • First and foremost, pick up the dog poop and trash.  It makes a world of difference.
  • As the snow recedes, take time to reset bricks and sweep.
  • Wipe down any outdoor furniture.
  • Clean up or bring out the fire pit (cool spring nights are perfect for backyard fires).
  • If you are lucky enough and your soil can be worked, then sow radish and snapdragon seeds.
  • Start cutting back perennials to ground level.
  • Start seeds indoors.  Starting just one small tray of seeds can give you your own organically grown plants.  Start seeds you never see at the garden center.  Try new varieties of peppers, tomatoes, or flowers!  Make sure you read the seed packet for individual instruction.seedlings
  • Build a cold frame (my weekend project) to get a head start on lettuces and other cool veggies.

Soon, we’ll be seeing lots of spring blooms!

spring tulips

Spring show at Garfield Park Conservatory


Plant Verbenia bonariensis with Care

benchI have greatly admired Verbena bornariensis since I spotted it at the Chicago Botanic Garden last summer.  It’s a wispy tall plant with fragrant purple flowers, very attractive to butterflies.  Also known as “purple top” and “South American vervain,”  it is hardy zones 7-11.  As a Northern gardener, I have started some seed this year.  It is grown in Chicago’s zone 5/6 as an annual, but please take care if you live in warmer zones This Verbena self seeds readily and has become an invasive plant in Southern and Western States.   Be conscious of the plants you introduce and the implications of your gardening habits.  For Northern gardeners, I feel that this is a beautiful annual, but if you live any zone warmer than 6, try an alternative, like Milkweed.  Milkweed offers a wonderful honey scent and is in dire need to be planted in gardens for our Monarch butterflies to survive.

Start Perennials from Seed

Red admiral butterflies on purple coneflower

Red admiral butterflies on purple coneflower

Starting plants from seed is the best way to ensure you are not putting unwanted pesticides and chemicals into your yard.  You’ll have happy pollinators with a healthy food supply.

Growing perennials is extra rewarding, since you’ll see your efforts return year after year. Here are a few full sun options to try:

  • Coneflower (comes in a variety of new colors, but purple is the original, butterfly magnet, winter seeds feed birds)
  • Shasta Daisy (cheerful white daisy)
  • Yarrow (clusters of tiny flowers with fern-like foliage, likes it hot and dry)
  • Rudbeckia (bright yellow flowers that attract butterflies)
  • Painted Daisy (fern-like foliage and pink daisy flowers)
  • Columbine (shooting star flower, usually bi-colored, reseeds readily)
  • Penstemon (tubular flowers that attract hummingbirds , come in a variety or colors, likes dry conditions.  I’m starting Firecracker, a show stopping orange/red that can take a little shade)

Most of these need to be started anywhere from 10 weeks to 6 weeks before the last frost date.  Starting seeds can help alleviate those winter blues.  So smile, Spring is on its way!


Growing in the Tropics

ferntreeI just returned from a trip to Puerto Rico.  While staying in Luquillo, I noticed a little garden patch of tomatoes in one yard.  It got me thinking, “Wow, you could probably grow a lot of your own veggies down here!”


Looking into a tropical permaculture site, I found most of the veggies we grow in our gardens all summer would do fine there grown in the winter months.  Giving your plants some afternoon shade, you could grow:

  • tomatoes
  • eggplant
  • peppers
  • beans
  • squash
  • chard
  • leaf lettuce
  • okra (something I usually associate with the South anyway)
  • Herbs: basil, parsley, rosemary

All of these common to our Northern gardens.  (Side note: I would miss growing garlic.)

The best part of tropic growing, is that during the summer, you can have fruit trees and avocado that can take the heat and rains.  Flavors like vanilla, hibiscus, and ginger would thrive too. Seems like this dude has figured it out!


Permaculture is all about working with nature, not forcing things.  If you compost, and water deeply in the morning, I think some serious success stories would unfold.

How to keep your house smelling good

indoor plantsWinter, the windows are closed.  It’s freezing and mucky outside.  The place we exist, our home, gets no air circulation, especially if you live with radiators.  Here are some helpful hints to keep the house smelling fresh in the dead of winter.

  • Keep a lively indoor garden. House plants can help circulate the air and take pollutants out, purifying the air indoors.roses
  • Buying fresh flowers, or forcing spring bulbs can add a pleasant scent to your home.paperwhite
  • Dusting.  I use a mixture of water, white vinegar, and a little essential oil. Dampen a cloth with a swig of vinegar and a dot of oil. Run the cloth under the faucet, wring, and dust.  It’ll leave your house smelling very sweet (if you use orange or geranium oil).che sleeping
  • Using a humidifier that has a well for essential oils.  Each night, I put a few drops of eucalyptus in my Vicks humidifier.  Eucalyptus is antibacterial, antiseptic and is a great decongestant (if you are feeling a bit under the weather).
  • Open windows every once in a while.
  • Scented candles as well as fires in the fireplace can make winter nights feel cozy and smell great.
  • Avoid harsh chemicals when cleaning.  Using baking soda, vinegar, and essential oils is all you really need to keep things clean.  A Guide to Green Housekeeping by Christina Strutt is my go to book.

Back of the Garden Plants

sundflowerI’m kind of a wild gardener.  I like the controlled chaos.  I want to have a garden that lends itself well to nature.  Birds, bees, bugs, cats, dogs, humans, I want them all to enjoy it.  Living in Chicago, if I wanted a completely natural Midwest garden, it would be filled with prairie natives.  I do have some, but I need those tropical annuals to make the garden pop!

My next quest for “new seeds to try,” I’m looking for back of the garden plants, the tallest plants.  The ones that will transform your yard from, “oh, cute little garden” to “oh, my god, you’ve really got a garden here!”  The tallest are always in the back.

Amaranth is IT (for me) this year!  It’s tall and it’s a super grain, packed with protein,  for either me or the birds.  There are several varieties in burgundy and orange.  Considering I’d like tall, 6 feet, I’m selecting Golden Giant, from Baker Creek.  Another tallish amaranth is Love Lies Bleeding, 3-5 feet with pink-purple cascades of flowers.

Either of these will work nicely with sunflowers and milkweed, two plants that I find are essential to a garden.


elephant earAll of these guys need full sun. I have a unique situation in my yard.  Like most city gardens, my yard gets shaded by a tall building.  So, I go from complete sun, and then almost complete shade (depending on the height of the sun in the sky throughout the growing season).  For a large background on the shady side, I plant elephant ear.  You can order tubers in colors of green or purple (almost black) shades.  They are great in larger containers or in the ground.  At the end of the season, the tubers will have multiplied, making it easy for you to dig up and have many more plants the following growing season.  I started with one little round tuber, now, I’ve got elephants growing out of my ears…ha ha…get it?

Stay tuned, more to come.

Happy New Year!

catalog pictureIt’s a new year, a new garden to plan!  I’ve been getting seed catalogs and spending many hours drooling over the images.  I’m really looking forward to try some new veggies and vibrant flowers. Over the next few weeks, I’ll share with you my ideas!

In progression with the growing season, I’d like a new radish.  I’ve been growing French Breakfast, which are fantastic, but it’s time for a change.  I’m thinking of a traditional bright red variety, cherry belle (Although I am drawn to the exotic looking watermelon mantonghong, with it’s pink inside and white exterior, it seems that the growing days (50-60) are a bit long for my garden.  I try to plant a warm crop after the radishes are harvested.).  Most likely, I’ll plant more French Breakfast along with a traditional cherry belle.

I’ve always grown green or spotted lettuce.  This year, I’d like to try the heirloom variety, Butterhead Marvel of Four Seasons.  An added bonus, Marvel supposedly won’t turn bitter when it gets warm and the plant begins to bolt.

As for early spring flowers, a mix of viola seeds in differing colors sounds delightful.  When I was young, I loved looking at “monkey faces.”  Botanical Interests offers a variety pack of colorful alternatives to purple and white.  To get a spring bloom, I may need to start some indoors.

More to share soon!


Christmas Ideas for the Gardener in Your Life!

beehouseIt’s the “most wonderful time of the year!”  Well, sort of.  It’s winter and gardeners are just not themselves this time of year.  There’s not much to do except turn the compost on warm days and feed the birds.  What to get the gardener for Christmas?!


Indoor gardening kits (these can range from a desk top size to a full indoor set up)

Houses for bees, butterflies, bats, or birds

Gift certificates to organic and heirloom seed companies (Baker Creek, Seed Savers)

Garden gloves (you can never have too many)

Sharpening tools for pruners and loppers

Waterproof shoes for summer and winter

Annual memberships to Botanic Gardens

Gift certificates to local nurseries (ones that don’t use pesticides on their seedlings)

Neem oil  (the only thing you need to control issues in an organic garden)


Garden Journals that provide a place to map out past, current, and future garden plans

Fancy tomato frames or other vegetable supports

Books on organic gardening specific to the region your gardener lives in

Magazine subscriptions to Organic Gardening or Chicagoland Gardening

Birding books

Epsom Salt Bath Soaks for tired muscles

xmas owl

Good Luck and Holidays!!!!